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Under the microscope

The latest round in the three-year heavyweight political battle that involves U.S. farm-raised catfish, food safety, government spending and international diplomacy is in the books. Who won, who lost and where the domestic catfish industry goes from here is yet to be determined.

The last week of May, two public comment hearings were held — the first in Washington, D.C., and second in the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville — concerning the ongoing debate about switching the inspection of imported catfish types from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. farm-raised catfish industry and its supporters maintain that the FDA is inspecting only about 2 percent of imported fish, primarily from Southwest Asia where production regulations do not meet U.S. standards, posing a public health risk.

“Fish farming environments in countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand are far less controlled and are exposed to a number of chemicals that are banned in the United States,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who sponsored the 2008 Farm Bill requirement on catfish inspections, at the Washington meeting. “Allowing contaminated products to enter our country’s food supply without being properly inspected would not only weaken consumer confidence, it would pose a significant public health risk.”

Cochran cited a Government Accountability Office report titled “Seafood Safety: FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources” during his comments. Cochran said the report is critical of FDA’s inspections and backs the U.S. farmers’ position.

However, opponents of USDA inspections, which include the National Fisheries Institute, also cite a different GAO report that found switching from the FDA to the USDA would create unneeded redundancy, put an extra burden on small businesses, cost taxpayer dollars and not ensure consumer safety.

John Connelly, president of NFI, said, “Voices who insist that moving catfish inspections to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will make the product safer may not have read the USDA’s own risk assessment about such a move: ‘There is substantial uncertainty regarding the actual effectiveness of FSIS catfish inspection program.'”

Connelly said such a program would create “redundant government regulations for small businesses” and “cost American jobs.”

“For instance, a seafood processor that works with both catfish and any other seafood would be subject to USDA and FDA regulation. That means small businesses that might otherwise create new processing jobs to put more seafood in the marketplace will instead have to pay new compliance officers and lawyers to comply with redundant regulations. Meanwhile, we will pay more taxes to pay for government seafood inspectors at two different government agencies to inspect the same facility.”

He pointed out that since the implementation of FDA’s seafood regulations, no cases of salmonellas linked to catfish have been reported. “And yet USDA would spend at least $150 million over the next decade — to protect us from what?”

Connelly defended Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who drew the wrath of the U.S. catfish industry earlier this year when he proposed to repeal the 2008 Farm Bill component concerning catfish inspections. Connelly said McCain was simply trying to cut government spending.

The supporters of the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry read something else into McCain’s proposal. Known for his strong pro-Vietnam position, U.S. farmers saw McCain’s proposal as an effort to give a boost to Vietnam’s fish industry, and they are angry about it.

“It is stunning that Sen. McCain has chosen to protect importers and Vietnamese farmers over the health and safety of American citizens,” said Butch Wilson, president of Catfish Farmers of America.

Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell said during the Stoneville hearing, “In case Washington hasn’t really heard the American public, we want Washington to stop sacrificing the safety of the American consumer in order to seek favor with any trading partner.”

Spell told the Mississippi Business Journal said that he found it “sad” if indeed international diplomacy is taking priority over American consumers’ health. He was upset to hear that at the Washington meeting a proposal was put forward to have the USDA begin inspecting domestic catfish, then develop protocol for foreign countries to fall under USDA oversight.

Spell said that proposal was completely “upside down.”

“We should inspect domestic and imported fish alike,” Spell said. “When I hear people call China ‘a great trading partner,’ it makes me nauseous. If they really want to get in the American market, then they can meet our safety standards.

“I put the U.S. catfish farmer first; everybody else second.”

U.S. farmers will have yet a little while longer to wait for an outcome. The USDA is accepting public comments through June 24. Those comments will subsequently be reviewed. Past that, nothing is certain.

“Hopefully, the (USDA inspection proposal) will be implemented,” said Roger Barlow, president of Jackson-based The Catfish Institute. “Our catfish are raised by farmers, not fishermen, so it just makes sense (for USDA inspections).

“While we are debating, more imported fish is coming into America. I’m afraid the big loser in all of this is going to be the American consumer.”

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